The Decline of War

On this International Day of Peace, it would seem perverse to celebrate the idea of world peace in the midst of ongoing and horrific conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and elsewhere, each persisting with no apparent end in sight.

But as Oxford academic Max Roser makes vividly clear at Our World in Data, humanity has in fact come closer than ever to widespread peace and prosperity, even if we still have quite a long way to go. This might seem counter-intuitive given the prevalent notion that the world is coming apart from all sides. But the data are resoundingly clear:

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Across the world, including Europe, war of every size, scale, and motive was so common an occurrence as to be the normal state of affairs. A long period of peace is a relatively new luxury enjoyed by billions of humans today, few of whose ancestors would have ever imagined, let alone experienced.

And despite all the concerns about renewed U.S. and Russia rivalry, or a rising China or posing a threat to American hegemony, today’s great powers are largely pacified, even if they continue to meddle through low-intensity civil conflicts like those in Ukraine and Syria

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None of this is to make light of the millions of lives ruined by the proxy wars, insurgencies, or civil conflicts that woefully persist. Rather, we must put them into perspective, and acknowledge that as awful and bloody and senseless as they are, not too long ago, they would not have warranted much concern or consideration — after all, war was the default state of the human condition. The fact that we are so appalled by it now speaks to how uncommon and less acceptable it is.

In a similar vein as Roser’s above timeline, the New York Times offers an even more detailed visualization of the precipitous decline of human warfare across history. (Click here for a larger, easier-to-read version.)

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Vox.com has also weighed into the analysis, citing data collected by  Steven Pinker in his fantastic and extensively well researched book on human moral progress, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

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There are many who doubt this progress, including researchers Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Pasquale Cirillo, who have conducted their own analysis of these data, and believe that such statistics are “misleading”.

Taleb and Cirillo’s core argument is that looking at raw numbers alone — casualty counts from different wars — is misleading. In order to understand the actual risk of large wars over time, they argue, you need some more complex statistical tools. Their paper uses a method called “extreme value theory”: a type of statistical analysis specifically designed to assess the probability of rare but extremely significant events, such as a world war.

Taleb and Cirillo conclude that there are two major flaws in Pinker’s theory. The first is that their analysis suggests huge conflicts (on the scale of 10 million casualties) only happen once a century, but Pinker’s “long peace” only covers 70 years. That could mean that what looks like a decline in violent conflict is merely a gap between major wars.

They also conclude that Pinker has underestimated the actual average casualty numbers in major wars by about three times, and that the real numbers don’t actually show a decline over time. If that’s right, his measurements of the apparent decline of war are overly rosy.

For those reasons, Taleb and Cirillo argue, Pinker and his fellow optimists are wrong. Viewed through their application of extreme value theory, the decline in war looks like a myth.

But as Pinker and other analysts point out, then just the numbers: human values and ethics have changed in previously unimaginable ways:

Pinker believes the “why” evidence is in his favor. He points to the fact that it’s not just war that’s declining: many other types of violence, ranging from murder to legal slavery, have been on the decline for centuries. Moreover, there are all sorts of reasons to think we’ve seen a revolution in human affairs in the past 200 years or so: the massive rise in global GDP, the unprecedented spread of democracy, and rapid globalization might all have altered the world in significant ways.

By virtue of being somewhat unusual and uncharted territory, this “Long Peace” is still a mystery in terms of continued sustainability. Maybe the disruptions of climate change or another global economic meltdown will presage war, or maybe we’re just one unexpected rogue government away from a flash point towards world conflict. But given how many close calls have come and gone without any overt conflict, and how today’s wars are comparatively war, smaller, and more limited in size and scale, it seems reasonable to hold out hope that maybe our species is coming closer to an international order where peace, albeit not necessarily perfect harmony and goodwill, becomes the unchallenged natural state.

It might seem like a stretch to imagine at this point in time — and no doubt will be small conflict to those many still tragically affected by war — but we’ve already come this far into an unprecedentedly peaceful state of affairs. At least now we can actually imagine that a better world is not only possible, but within reach during our lifetimes, if trends continue. Here’s hoping that the moral arc continues apace, so that an International Day of Peace can someday serve as a reminder of an alien era when war was the norm.

What are your thoughts?

 

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